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Jimmy Santiago Baca is recognized as a leading figure in contemporary Hispanic literature and has been praised for the rich imagery and lyricism of his poetry. An ex-convict who taught himself to read while in prison, he writes of spiritual rebirth and triumph over tragedy— unlike many ”prison writers” whose works teem with rage and desolation. Baca’s poetry has garnered praise for the insight it offers into the experience of Hispanic and Amerindian peoples.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Life on the Street and in Prison
A Mestizo—or mixed-race descendant—of Chicano and Apache descent, Jimmy Santiago Baca was born to a poor family in New Mexico in 1952. Baca was abandoned by his parents at the age of two and, after a brief stay with a grandparent, was placed in a New Mexico orphanage. He fled the orphanage at age eleven and spent most of his teen years on the streets of Albuquerque. In 1972 Baca was convicted on a narcotics charge and sentenced to five years in an Arizona maximum-security prison.
Baca’s experience in federal prison was marked by a succession of lockdowns, humiliations, confrontations with racist inmates, and beatings by prison guards, all of which would push him to the lowest point of his life. Recalcitrant behavior earned him additional time on his sentence, as well as electric shock treatments and nearly four years in solitary confinement. The humiliations he lived through in prison—as well as the personal spiritual transformation that followed them—would later become the primary subject of his poetry. Of these experiences, he says, ”Nothing was being nourished to discover and create, and i finally destroyed myself in this huge cemetery called the prisons of America. When I went to prison I no longer existed. I was a non-entity.” During the latter half of his prison sentence, however, Baca changed his approach toward his confinement: instead of cultivating anger, he focused on healing the hurt he had experienced as a child and young adult. Baca began a prolonged process of self-discovery and education, that showed him that language could become a vehicle for bringing order to the chaos that surrounded him. In prison Baca became fully literate in both Spanish and English, immersing himself in the world of books.
Initially drawn to poetry, Baca began to read the work of diverse poets. While teaching himself Spanish, he read the works of Pablo Neruda, Juan Ramon Jimenez, and Federico Garcia Lorca; in English he read William Wordsworth, Mary Baker, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, Walt Whitman, Denise Levertov, and Allen Ginsberg. He has explained: ”I was tired of being treated like an animal. I wanted to learn how to read and to write and to understand. . . . The only way of transcending was through language and understanding.” Baca began writing his own poetry and, encouraged by a fellow inmate, sent a sample of his work to Mother Jones magazine. Not only were these poems accepted for publication, but the journal’s poetry editor, Denise Levertov, assisted Baca in finding a publisher for his first collection of poetry, Immigrants in Our Own Land (1979). Immigrants was followed by two more collections, Swords of Darkness (1981) and What’s Happening (1982).
After leaving prison in the late 1980s, Baca spent some time in North Carolina before returning to New Mexico, where he then spent some years living in Albuquerque working odd jobs as a night watchman, janitor, and laborer, and redirected his life through what was to be a sustained period of bittersweet events. During these years Baca fought and eventually overcame bouts of drug addiction and alcoholism. He would eventually view marriage and family as vital and central in providing meaning to his life. Indeed he attributes much of his success to the love and support of his wife, Beatrice, and his children. After a period of severe spiritual crisis, Baca once again found solace in the writing of poetry. Baca’s fourth book, Martin and Meditations on the South Valley (1987), a semiautobiographical work that critics termed a novel in verse, won the prestigious American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation in 1988. The subject matter of the collection reflects the long period of transition and uncertainty Baca experienced during the eight-year hiatus between the publication of Immigrants and that of Martin and Meditations on the South Valley. These years were filled with restless, unresolved dilemmas and ongoing struggles in his personal life. Baca explains that, although he continued to publish minor works, he had all but abandoned poetry and writing:
I was trying to figure out whether I was going to live in prison forever or whether I could live in this world. I wanted to go back to prison, ’cause I couldn’t live in this world and I was bored and I couldn’t deal with the world out here.
Further Success and Activism
After the success of Martin and Meditations on the South Valley, Baca began writing prolifically. In 1988 he published Black Mesa Poems, for which he earned the Wallace Stevens Poetry Award and the National Hispanic Heritage Award. He has also published a collection of autobiographical essays titled Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet in the Barrio (1992). Baca has been poet in residence at both Yale University and the University of California at Berkeley, but he has rejected many further offers to lecture and teach, remaining primarily on his farm in Albuquerque with his wife and children.
While Baca continues to write poetry and teach and lecture at colleges, he also works with people in the inner city who face the same persecution he faced as an abandoned teenager. He is the founder of a nonprofit grass roots cooperative for inner-city youth called Black Mesa Enterprises. He runs a creative writing workshop with steelworkers, and the product of that class is an anthology called The Heat. When Barbara Stahura of the Progressive asked him if the reason he works with gang members, convicts, and illiterate adults is because of his own empowerment through language, he responded,
Damn right. Right into the barrios and the projects and the poor white areas. They have such a reverence for language. They can’t believe the language can carry so much power, and once they get hold of that, they begin to unteach what they were taught about who they are. If they were taught to be racist or violent, language has this amazing ability to unteach all that, and make them question it. It gives them back their power toward regaining their humanity. That’s why I do it.
Works in Literary Context
Racial and Cultural Heritage
Baca’s poetry identifies and explores the Chicano Mestizo experience in the American Southwest, fusing issues of cultural heritage to the more universal theme of an individual’s painful search for identity and meaning. The bold poetic images for which he is noted are not the collected perceptions of a large ethnic group but the sharp vision of a single Mestizo struggling to find himself. Critic Scott Slovic has written that ”to read Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poetry is to tramp across the uneven terrain of human experience, sometimes lulled by the everydayness of work or relationships, and then dazzled by a flood of emotion or vibrant observation.” In Immigrants in Our Own Land, Baca vividly conveys the physical and mental barriers of prison life and identifies how racial prejudice influences the individual’s sense of isolation; in the poems comprising the later What’s Happening, he relates his struggle to reenter a world and culture that has brought him much pain and suffering. Within these accounts, however, there resonate the broader elements of Baca’s Mestizo heritage. Martin and Meditations, for example, explicitly links the success of the hero’s self-exploration with the discovery of his ancestry. ”I wanted Martin to be a real human being and let him live in this world and have a mythology that was his as well as the people’s,” Baca has written.
Critic A. Gabriel Melendez has cited that ”Baca’s poetry is to a large degree infused with elements drawn from his experiences, and . . . recurrent themes of transformation, metamorphosis, and self-actualization that have accompanied the poet’s own trajectory as an individual and a writer.” Attuned to real-life circumstances, each of Baca’s books represents a concrete step in the process of rebuilding his life from the point of nonexistence that he associates with the years spent in prison. Thus each book in turn marks a step in Baca’s determination to move his personal and poetic endeavor toward full realization. Baca’s chief concern in Immigrants in Our Own Land, for example, is regaining a sense of self, which is obscured by the prison system’s ability to strip the individual of dignity and self-worth.
Family and Community
Baca’s efforts to reconstruct his own psyche and sense of identity immediately move him to reflect upon his connection to family and community. In Immigrants, for example, Baca seeks a connection to the collective meaning and past of his ancestors. His search for personal meaning emerges in Immigrants as an ever-widening series of connections that lead him to an individual and collective examination of his incarceration. In Martin, Baca points toward the love and support of family as an invaluable component of an individual’s spiritual transformation.
Works in Critical Context
According to critic A. Gabriel Melendez, Jimmy Santiago Baca ”has come to the forefront as one of the most widely read and recognized Chicano poets working today.” Melendez also notes that one of Baca’s most important accomplishments was ”to widen the critical attention directed by mainstream critics and publishers toward his own work and that of other Chicano writers.”
Immigrants in Our Own Land
Baca’s first major collection, Immigrants in Our Own Land appeared in 1979. The poems, highlighting the splendor of human existence amid the desolate surroundings of prison life, met with rave reviews. Critics have repeatedly applauded Baca’s forthright style and the passion he generates in his poetry. Marion Taylor called Baca’s poems ”astonishingly beautiful” for their ”celebration of the human spirit in extreme situations.” Denise Levertov found that ”his work is rich in image and music, full of abundant energy and love of life even when describing the brutal and tragic.” Writing in the American Book Review, renowned Hispanic writer Ron Arias commends the poet’s skill and versatility: ”At times [Baca] can be terse, narrowly focused, directly to the point. . . . Other times he can resemble an exuberant Walt Whitman in the long-lined rhythm and sweep of his emotions—expansive, wordy, even conversational.” He concludes that Baca ”is a freshly aggressive poet of many abilities. . . . His is a gifted, young vision, and judging from this collection, I get the feeling he is just warming up. I look forward to more.” Melendez observed that the publication of Immigrants in Our Own Land ”established Baca’s potential as a serious and prolific new voice on the poetry scene.”
Martin and Meditations on the South Valley
Baca’s next work, Martin and Meditations on the South Valley, met with outstanding success, earning Baca the American Book Award for poetry. A semi autobiographical work that critics termed a novel in verse, the book chronicles the life of Martin, an orphaned ”detribalized” Apache who sojourns across the United States in search of permanence and meaning in his life. Intended to con vey the sometimes traumatic Chicano experience in America, Martin and Meditations details the protagonist’s sense of abandonment and displacement. ”With Martin and Meditations on the South Valley,” A. Gabriel Melendez suggests, ”Baca brings to closure that phase of his poetry that deals with loss, dejection, a searching for identity, and a sense of belonging. . . . Absent are the self-destructive tendencies that typified Baca’s earlier years of searching and wandering.”
Critics found much to praise in Martin and Meditations on the South Valley. While several recognized the work as a forceful sociological and cultural document, Liam Rector in the Hudson Review also deems the poetry volume ”a book of great complicity, maturity, and finally responsibility. . . . It is a contemporary hero tale.” Ron Arias has expressed admiration for Baca’s impassioned writings, comparing his inventiveness to that of a jazz musician: ”Whether or not the melody or train of images works as a unified piece with a clear theme is of secondary importance to the journey itself, a journey of discovery unbound by prison walls and fences.”
- Levertov, Denise. Afterword to Baca’s What’s Happening. Willimantic, Conn.: Curbstone, 1982. Introduction to Baca’s Martin and Meditations on the South Valley. New York: New Directions, 1987.
- Arias, Ron. Review of Immigrants in Our Own Land: Poems. American Book Review (January 1982): 11-12.
- Krier, Beth Ann. ”Baca: A Poet Emerges from Prison of His Past.” Los Angeles Times, February 15, 1989.
- Rector, Liam. Review of Martin and Meditations on the South Valley. Hudson Review (Summer 1989): 393-400.
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